An import from the United Kingdom, as part of the 2017 Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters, Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam is not based on a true story relating to events in the eponymous Dutch city. It rather focuses on a British lesbian couple, one of whom decides at the beginning of the play that she’s really a man and really wants to become transgender. The crux of the drama is between Alice and her lover Fiona, who, in the course of the play, becomes Adrian. But why the two of them moved to Rotterdam seven years ago, is never really answered in the play–rather posed as a recurring question–along with the question of whether or not they’re going to remain there.
The play opens in the midst of great tension, as Alice is finishing an email in which she’s notifying her parents that she’s a lesbian. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done,” she says about the email, which Alice decides not to send. Besides, Alice’s momentous decisions are eclipsed by Fiona’s finally blurting out, at the end of the scene, “I think I’m a man… I think I’m meant to be a man.”
As the two of them begin to explore what this means for themselves and each other, Rotterdam evolves into an intriguing and smart presentation of the many permutations that “transitioning” into another gender entails. For one of the many tortuous ways of interpreting just what it means, consider Fiona’s later saying, “I just want to stop trying to be a woman.”
Though Alice acts supportive for much of the play, we can also tell–via Alice McCarthy’s subtle and shaded performance–that she has strong reservations from the beginning. In the first place, since she identifies herself as a lesbian, will she even now want to be with a man, instead of a woman? And as Fiona eventually says, “My periods would stop, so our bad moods wouldn’t be in sync anymore.”
As the loving and supportive relationship between Alice and Fiona undergoes significant changes, the two other characters in this four-character work are Fiona’s brother Josh–with whom Alice was originally connected–and Lelani, the only true Dutch character in the play. Lelani is also a 21-year-old lesbian, who both works with and falls for Alice: Though it’s obvious during the first act that Alice is also falling for Lelani, Alice remains true to Fiona (who, remember, became Adrian) until after the intermission. Needless to say, it’s before we return to our seats for the second act that Fiona becomes the far more manly Adrian, as effectively portrayed by Anna Martine Freeman, who really does come to resemble, both physically and behaviorally, a male, rather than a female–to an uncanny degree.
But as fine as both actresses are, the acting awards of the evening go to the secondary players, Ellie Morris, as the quirky, young and chic Lelani, and Ed Eales-White, as the self-effacing Josh, who ultimately stands up for himself–up to a point: their subtle but consistent performances allow them to truly inhabit their characters.
The functional if limited set design by Ellan Parry depicts two different apartments, each with a door, and one with a closet that also serves as an entry and exit, at various points. Nor can much be added to qualify the lighting design by Richard Williamson. Parry’s costume designs, on the other hand, are to be applauded–especially for establishing Lelani’s character, with a wild, contemporary flair. (In one scene, she even sports glitter not only on her face, but also on her lips.) But then, there is no separate credit in the program for a make-up designer, so presumably they are part of the designer credit for Parry.
Though director Donnacadh O’Briain has a real challenge negotiating so many quick scene changes, and you may feel, at times, that there’s too much shouting and anger about–making it a sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia without the Woolf— Rotterdam is really a smart play that gets you thinking about transgender people in new and vital ways.
Rotterdam (through June 10, 2017)
2017 Brits Off Broadway Festival
At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission